Thunderbirds are go - again

Film chiefs rack their Brains as casting begins for big screen version of Sixties TV hit
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The Independent Online
It is the casting dilemma of the year. Who can play five almost identical brothers? And which actress can portray a Sixties icon with beautiful features, imperious manner and an icy upper class accent?

Thunderbirds, the cult television animation hit launched 32 years ago, is to be filmed by Working Title, the British production company behind films such as Fargo and Four Weddings And A Funeral.

Peter Hewitt, director of the forthcoming big screen adaptation of the children's book The Borrowers, has been appointed as director and the search is now on for a cast to attract a young audience without tarnishing the childhood memories of devoted fortysomethings.

Thunderbirds, launched on ITV in 1965 by the husband and wife team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, became an instant hit, launching the animatronic and future merchandising careers of the technical wizard Brains and his all-American family employers, the Tracys.

Jeff Tracy, and his five handsome sons, operated International Rescue, a top secret organisation of the 2020s dedicated to rescuing those in need, both globally and inter-galactically.

Operating from a remote island in the Pacific, International Rescue was the brainchild of former astronaut Jeff, who together with his offspring and state of the art Thunderbird rescue vehicles, takes on a variety of daring missions.

The Tracys' London-based agent is the glamorous Lady Penelope, rarely seen without Parker - her trusted chauffeur - who in turn is rarely heard without his cod below-stairs accent.

The beaming smiles of the puppet characters provide the enduring memory for British fans. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore once parodied this to great effect in a sketch, playing Lady Penelope and Parker. Hearing news of a massive disaster, Moore cried "this is terrible" through gleaming, bronzed smile, arms and legs shaking marionette style.

The series proved its popularity when the BBC ran 32 repeated episodes a few year ago. There was such demand for Thunderbirds toys that there were shortages of Tracy Island models. When Blue Peter showed its viewers how to make a do-it-yourself version, more than 100,000 fans wrote in for an instruction sheet.

British fans of Thunderbirds will want to see the haughty Lady Penelope played by a homegrown actress. One film industry insider said there was a good chance of this, with Julie Christie being mentioned for the role. "She has the right mouth," said the industry source.

The Oscar winner Kristin Scott Thomas, star of The English Patient, is another likely contender, with Elizabeth Hurley a distant outsider. Perhaps the real 100-1 shot is TV presenter Anneka Rice, who made a passable Lady Penelope for a television comedy sketch some time ago.

American actresses will also covet the job. Sharon Stone, keen to play a comic role, is also likely to be considered by the production team along with fellow Hollywood star Nicole Kidman.

As for the Tracy brothers, a set of real-life brothers may be cast. Hollywood star Alec Baldwin has acting brothers in Daniel, William and Stephen. They could portray four of the Tracy brothers. The Bridges brothers, Beau and Jeff, are another Hollywood pair with international appeal.

This side of the Atlantic there are the acting brothers McGann. Paul, a former Dr Who, and Joe, Mark and Stephen have already appeared together on screen.

Ralph and Joseph Fiennes could also figure. Ralph Fiennes, despite his role as romantic hero in The English Patient, is not averse to a change of pace with a movie adaptation of a Sixties TV hit.

He started shooting this week on the film of The Avengers, in which he plays John Steed opposite Uma Thurman's Emma Peel.

Thunderbirds will go into production in 1988 with its release expected the following year. It is one of the first movie projects to emerge from the ITC Entertainment Group catalogue, bought by Polygram, Working Title's parent company.

The ITC catalogue includes other classic TV shows ripe for the big screen treatment: shows such as the cult series The Prisoner, Captain Scarlett, Joe 90, and The Persuaders - which is already in development with Working Title for a future movie release.

Tim Bevan, co-chairman of Working Title Films, said: "The Thunderbirds television series has been one of the UK's greatest success stories, with modern audiences continuing to enjoy its characters, storylines and fantastical gadgets."